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Disaster Assistance Options for the Undocumented

Immigrant Eligibility for Disaster Assistance fact sheet from the National Immigration Law Center

Miranda Phaal's insight:

The Red Cross' Statement on Impartiality reads, "The American Red Cross mission is to aid all persons in distress. Its policy is to treat all victims of disaster equally and respectfully. 'Red Cross workers will not question clients about their citizenship status. Nor will they request birth certificates, immigration papers, passports, social 

security cards, or similar documents.'”

 

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like the Red Cross are able to provide a range of completely unrestricted disaster assistance options to "all victims" in need, including non-citizens/undocumented immigrants. Such organizations include nonprofits, community and faith-based organizations, some of which are born out of immigrant communities themselves. Examples of services include "emergency shelter, food, water, first aid, clothing, and sometimes a small 

amount of cash to help with immediate expenses." 

 

FEMA is only active in "disaster areas" as declared by the federal government, but they do provide some unrestricted emergency services, mainly in the form of "short-term, noncash, 

emergency help to disaster victims no matter what their immigration status is. For example, FEMA warns people about dangers, helps them leave dangerous places, and searches for lost people and rescues them. FEMA also provides transportation, emergency
medical care, crisis counseling, and emergency shelter to whomever needs them. And it provides emergency food, water, medicine, and other supplies to meet disaster victims’ basic needs."

 

Noncash, emergency aid from state and local governments is "usually" also available to all victims, regardless of immigration status. 

 

Restricted services (available only to U.S. citizens and "qualified aliens") that the federal government provides fall more within the fields of cash- and longer-term assistance. Examples are FEMA's "Individuals and Households Program" that "helps disaster victims rent temporary housing, repair and replace destroyed housing, 

replace possessions, and pay medical and funeral costs," and "U.S. Small Business Administration loans to repair or replace damaged homes, property, or businesses." ("Qualified aliens" are green card holders, refugees, asylees, Cuban or Haitian entrants, or "certain" victims of domestic violence.)


In households of mixed immigration status, all members may receive unrestricted services, but only U.S. citizens and qualified aliens may receive restricted services. The fact sheet provides the following examples: 

ƒ

"Undocumented parents living with their U.S. citizen
children who are under age 18 may apply on behalf of those
children for restricted FEMA benefits, such as cash assistance
through the Individuals and Households Program." 

ƒ"Undocumented parents who apply for restricted services on behalf
of their minor U.S. citizen children generally must provide the
children’s Social Security numbers. The parents should not be
required to provide their own Social Security numbers. They
should not be required to provide any information or sign any
documents about their own immigration status."

 

In the former, it is unclear whether applying for aid "on behalf" of a child in the household means that the entire family will receive aid, or just the child. If the aid is distributed by household (as one might think is the case for the Individuals and Households Program), then it should be irrelevant whether the child is a minor or not – aid would go to the entire household regardless. But if the child is not a minor, yet still shares a household with his/her parents, how is the aid actually allotted? Considering that parents applying for aid on behalf of their children are advised to "make it clear that you are seeking services only for your children, not for yourself" and not to "provide any information about your own immigration status," as "information about your status is unnecessary, since you are not seeking services for yourself," it would seem that restricted aid is still only allotted to U.S. citizens and qualified immigrants, and that applying for aid on behalf of a minor does nothing more to help the family than of the child was 18 and applied for his/herself. 

 

In the latter example, the repeated use of the word "should" is troubling, and does nothing to provide the security and peace of mind that undocumented immigrants need before they can seek assistance. 

 

That said, many people lose their documents or have their documents destroyed during a natural disaster, and often "agencies that provide disaster services...will relax normal application requirements about proving citizenship, immigration status, or identity" because of this. "

"Immigrants who apply or ask for help after a disaster" are advised to "describe their situation. If they lost or left their documents behind when the disaster hit, they should explain this to any agency official who asks for their documents." It is unclear (likely case-by-case, and therefore unreliable) whether said officials will follow up after they have already given out the aid. 

 

On the issue of language, "agencies that help disaster victims often have staff who speak languages other than English. Or they may use interpreters who can help people who don’t speak English. The interpreters may be at the disaster site or available by telephone. When interpreting services are provided, they should be free of charge." Again, the fact sheet's statement is full of "often"s, "may"s and "should"s that provide little assurance. This is possibly a product of compiling a lot of disparate information into generalizations, but it may also reflect on the /ad hoc/ nature of disaster situations. However, "many agencies," such as FEMA, "that help disaster victims are required by law to provide language help when it is needed."


Immigrants "intentionally providing false information on applications...in order to get services they are not eligible for...can lead to criminal prosecution and can also affect an immigrant’s
chances of a getting a 'green card' or U.S. citizenship," but because 

agencies may be breaking the law if they deny people disaster help because of their race or national origin, or because the agencies assume that the people do not have legal immigration status," the burden of proof may fall on the agencies to prove that a person is indeed undocumented, rather than on the immigrant to prove that they had documents before they were lost or destroyed, for example. 

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FEMA's policy on aid & undocumented immigrants

FEMA's policy on aid & undocumented immigrants | Disaster Aid & Recovery | Scoop.it
ATLANTA, Ga. --  Everyone affected by the September Georgia flooding can still apply for state and federal disaster assistance, including foreign nationals here legally, said officials from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Miranda Phaal's insight:

This particular bulletin was posted in response to flooding in Georgia, but the general policies hold across all disaster responses.

 

The bulletin begins by stating that "everyone affected by the September Georgia flooding can still apply for state and federal disaster assistance, including foreign nationals here legally." There is an awkward tension in the statement, as FEMA tries to repel concern by assuring that "everyone" is eligible to receive federal aid, yet adding the caveat that applicants must be "legally," thereby excluding illegal  residents from "everyone" else. I have talked at some length about both sides of the argument for this distinction in my earlier Scoop, "Undocumented immigrants ineligible for FEMA relief...," and concluded that the distinction is a necessary one for the purposes of transparency (record-keeping) in the use of public funds. What is troublesome is that this bulletin's opening statement seems to exclude illegal immigrants even from the status of personhood, denying their existence and their needs. 

 

However, the rest of FEMA's policies outlined in the bulletin restore some faith. They appear to be doing all that they can to offer aid to <i>everyone</i> in need within the limits of their own status as a federal agency. Their policies are as follows:

 

"People issued a legal permanent resident card - commonly referred to as "a green card" - may apply for assistance if they have disaster-related losses. Other non-citizens who can apply with FEMA include those with legal resident status because of asylum, refugee status, parole status, suspension of deportation status or status as victims of domestic violence."

 

"Only one member of a household needs to be eligible to qualify the entire household for assistance, so parents and guardians may apply for assistance on behalf of a minor child here legally."

 

"FEMA does not collect information on the immigration status of other household members." 

 "Those in the United States with temporary tourist visas, student visas, work visas and temporary resident cards are not eligible for disaster assistance."
Specific to the Georgia flood victims: "Applicants should register by calling 800-621-3362 (FEMA) or TTY 800-462-7585 and apply. Help in all languages is available. The toll-free telephone numbers are available 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week until further notice. Application for disaster assistance also can be made by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov. FEMA HelpLine specialists can also refer you to other programs that may provide disaster-assistance regardless of your immigration status. about their application or review information FEMA needs to process the application. Recovery specialists can supply contacts for other programs that may be able to help."


FEMA's referral program with other private organizations is an elegant workaround to their restrictions, if it works smoothly. Their 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on the immigration status of other household members is perhaps the best that can be hoped for, though I expect that fear of deportation still keeps many mixed immigration status families from applying. I am also now concerned for those with only "temporary tourist visas, student visas, work visas and temporary resident cards," who are ineligible for aid from FEMA. 

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Undocumented immigrants ineligible for FEMA relief and at greater risk during recovery efforts

Undocumented immigrants ineligible for FEMA relief and at greater risk during recovery efforts | Disaster Aid & Recovery | Scoop.it
If history repeats itself undocumented immigrants will be a large part of Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts but they themselves won’t qualify for financial assistance from FEMA.
Miranda Phaal's insight:

The policy makes sense – FEMA must keep track of how it is distributing the money it is granted, and those without official documentation cannot be entered into the system. However, it means that many people who needed disaster relief after Sandy were unable to get it. 

 

Undocumented does not necessarily mean illegal, and I would like to make that distinction from the start. All legal residents of the United States deserve equal aid from the State, and there should be a provision in FEMA's policies for that. As for illegal immigrants, they of course deserve aid too, but the issue is trickier. Public funds must be subject to public scrutiny so that the Government may be held accountable for how it uses them, but government agencies are not designed to accommodate illegal residents. There is the oft-cited fairness issue – that because they do not pay taxes, they have no right to public funds. It's a legitimate point, but I suspect there are far greater drains to our public wealth than the illegal immigrant population, and they certainly make up for a lot of they take in the work that many of them do. 

 

Which leads into the article's next point. A large portion of the recovery effort after a natural disaster is often left up to the undocumented labor force, and the work can be nearly as dangerous as the disaster that necessitated it. We saw this in the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and "if history repeats itself, low-wage and hazardous jobs that involve mold and other toxic environments will be saved for undocumented immigrants" in the wake of Sandy too, the article said. "In the days after Katrina the government dropped the federal requirement to pay minimum wage and lifted a requirement for companies to prove their workers’ legal status," essentially allowing the work to go unregulated. When the article was written, however, the affected area hadn't “seen any of the rules change." But immigration enforcement was "still there and that very often prevents undocumented worker from seeking help, from demanding that they work in safe conditions, so they will be working in that challenging environments regardless of the requirement from the federal government [sic].”  


Notable ways in which FEMA has tried to move closer to its professed mission of simply helping the people who need help include the ability of an entire household to claim  federal aid if just one of its residents is a documented citizen (for example, a child born in the United States), and FEMA's assurance that it does "not collect information on the immigration status of other household members."

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FEMA's Civil Rights Program

FEMA's Civil Rights Program | Disaster Aid & Recovery | Scoop.it
Any person eligible to receive disaster aid or other services from FEMA is entitled to those benefits without discrimination. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of their race, color, or national origin in programs that receive Federal financial assistance. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 affords comparable guarantees to individuals with disabilities, and adds protections against bias in programs conducted by the government itself.
Miranda Phaal's insight:

Post 2 of 2 on FEMA's official stance and policies on discrimination.

 

FEMA's Civil Rights Program, a section of its Office of Equal Rights, was formed in response to and along with several federal equal rights Acts, to ensure that the FEMA adheres to those Acts. The first is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that "protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of their race, color, or national origin in programs that receive Federal financial assistance." Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 "affords comparable guarantees to individuals with disabilities," Section 308 of the Robert T. Stafford Emergency Management and Disaster Assistance Act "prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, disability, nationality, sex, English Proficiency, age, or economic status in all disaster assistance programs," and Section 309 of the Stafford Act "applies these nondiscrimination provisions to all private relief organizations participating in the response and recovery effort." The Stafford Act is also the law that "authorizes Federal assistance when the President declares a State to be a disaster area."


Under these Acts, FEMA or any FEMA-assisted program may not: 

"Deny access to program services, aids, or benefits;"Provide a different service, aid or benefits, or provide them in a manner different than they are provided to others; or,"Segregate or separately treat individuals in any matter related to the receipt of any service, aid or benefit."in the interest of equal access to such services. 


The Civil Rights Program provides FEMA two broad services. The first is "technical assistance," which includes policy guidance to the Agency to insure that it meets Civil Rights mandates, a staff that "works closely with community organizations to resolve tensions and eliminate potential complaints" (some unfortunate word choices there), and "assistance to the Agency and the national emergency management community in the effort to make publications, programs, and facilities accessible to people with disabilities." The second service is "complaints resolution," which appears to be distinct from the complaints-related service that "technical assistance" entails, because it addresses full-fledged complaints rather than potential ones. Individuals eligible for aid from FEMA who believe they have been discriminated against by FEMA are supposed to contact the Office of Equal Rights (OER) to obtain assistance in filing a complaint. At that point, "the matter will be looked into informally by an Equal Rights Specialist. If the issue cannot be resolved informally, a formal written complaint may be filed with OER." OER is then responsible for processing, investigating and issuing final decisions on the complaints it receives. 


The desire to try to resolve complaints informally first is understandable, and probably best practice in that it prevents the waste of time, money and effort by all parties involved. However, I doubt FEMA keeps careful records of "informal" resolutions. By contrast, all formal complaints must be in writing and mailed or faxed to the Office of Equal Rights, and must contain personal contact info such as name, address and phone number. 


FEMA seems to have strong foundation policies in place for egalitarian practices, and its numerous and detailed publications on the issue indicate that it takes the possibility of discrimination seriously. Although they also indicate that the possibility is a very real one. 

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The Politics of Disaster Aid (Colorado Flood Bill vs Hurricane Sandy Bill in Congress)

The Politics of Disaster Aid (Colorado Flood Bill vs Hurricane Sandy Bill in Congress) | Disaster Aid & Recovery | Scoop.it
Members of Congress who fought to deny federal aid to New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy have quietly voted for emergency assistance to help disaster victims in their own state.
Miranda Phaal's insight:

A minor scandal took place in October of last year when four Republican Congress members from Colorado voted to approve a bill that lifted the $100 billion cap on relief funds for Colorado flood victims soon after voting against additional aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy. “Natural disasters don’t discriminate, but apparently Republican members from Colorado do,” commented Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Queens).

 

The exact sequence of events  and motivations surrounding both bills remains somewhat foggy (the article has a definite liberal slant, and appears to have made some omissions of important details, if consensus in the comments section is to be trusted). Many called the four Republican Reps hypocritical, and accused them of fair-weather funding when their constituents are the affected group. This was likely the greater motive in their decision, as it has become merely a description of how representative democracy works. But in that vein, the backers of the Sandy relief bill were not so innocent either – the bill supposedly contained funding for the Smithsonian in DC, salmon fisheries in Oregon, and other parties entirely unaffected by the superstorm. (This is one of the reasons ascribed to the four Republican Reps for their votes against the Sandy bill, whereas the CO flood bill was supposedly pork-free.)

 

It seems to be a somewhat regular occurrence for members of Congress to try to slip as much extra appeasement dollars in with the bound-to-be-approved disaster aid as they can get away with. I am left wondering whether there isn't a better way to handle relief funding – a more efficient channel less polluted by the many biases and conflicting interests of bureaucracy. But of course, what the Government does with taxpayers' money must remain transparent. I just wonder if it's currently as transparent as we think.

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How disastrous must a "disaster" be?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has rejected a request from Maine for disaster relief money for last December's ice storm.
Miranda Phaal's insight:

In this short segment we get a look into the federal government's decision-making process for just how bad a disaster has to be in order to be officially declared a "disaster." The real issue is, of course, whether the affected community is eligible for federal aid. In this case, an ice storm in Maine last December caused more than $1.8 million in damages and left thousands of homes and businesses without power for a week. Maine filed a request with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to declare a disaster, and the request was denied just yesterday. (Why it took FEMA four months to respond on such an urgent matter is another point of concern.)

 

The basic test that FEMA uses is to determine whether the damage caused was "beyond the capabilities of the State and local governments" to repair. The standard itself sounds fair – as long as FEMA's definition of "capability" leaves enough money and resources left over for the State to recover – but the reason that Maine failed to meet the standard was a case of absolute adherence to the letter of the law without consideration of the practical circumstances. Maine's damages were judged to be within the capacity of its own governments to repair because the State was assumed be up to the federal standards for snowstorm preparedness in infrastructure, etcetera. It wasn't.

 

Maine must be responsible in some way for keeping up to safety standards, but "not allowing" the State to submit certain damages for consideration that were due to its below standard infrastructure is not how the State should be held accountable. Even if it was not a deliberate penalty, which it almost certainly wasn't, refusing to give aid to the State after the disaster has occurred for its failure to be prepared only aggravates the long recovery process and transfers the burden onto the citizens rather than the ones responsible – their legislators. 

 

Moving forward, I would like to understand FEMA's exact standards and assessment criteria in more depth. 

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Canine Comfort in Crisis

Canine Comfort in Crisis | Disaster Aid & Recovery | Scoop.it
Multiple comfort dogs intended to calm those who are stressed have been spending time with emergency responders following the deadly mudslide in Oso, Wash. (Comfort dogs aid stressed-out rescuers at scene of Washington mudslide.
Miranda Phaal's insight:

Rescue workers are often a nameless, faceless body, overshadowed – and perhaps rightly so – by the victims. But rescuers often make tremendous sacrifices as well, in both their mental and physical health and safety, as we have seen from the first responders on 9/11. The use of "crisis therapy" dogs to comfort rescue workers in the recent Washington State mudslide who have been "spending long hours in the mud, rain, and debris, sifting through the personal belongings of those lost in the mudslide and even locating and extracting the dead," represents an important if under-publicized focus during such disasters. 

 

Then again, perhaps the "calming, lovable distraction" that these dogs provide for rescue workers is just that: a distraction from the workers' urgent work. There are plenty of people who would balk at the idea of rescue workers sitting around petting dogs while victims remain trapped and injured under the rubble and their precious time slips by. However, this article touched on another concerning point:  at one point there were more than 80 volunteers hulled up in the Oso Fire Department awaiting  "an opportunity to head up to the slide zone," because "there are more volunteers than authorities can utilize, meaning some sit on standby for hours, if not days at a time." These volunteers literally have nothing better to do but sit down and allow themselves to be comforted by "comfort dogs."  

 

That kind of underutilization of a vital resource seems like a red flag in any scenario, but I am still a new researcher on this topic and I confess I do not know much about coordinating rescue and recovery efforts. I will continue to look into this and related areas.

 

Because the continued media coverage of disasters seems to correlate with the length of time that the country continues to pay attention to them, I will end with this: 90 people are still missing in Washington, and the rains still pour. 

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NYC tackles disaster aid for the undocumented after Sandy: lessons learned and plans for the future

Miranda Phaal's insight:

New York City certainly generated a lot of documents on the topic of disaster relief for immigrant communities after Superstorm Sandy — but will they do any good? 

 

The "Disaster Assistance for Immigrants'" guide by the Hurricane Sandy Immigrant Outreach Initiative (which I could not find in any other language but English in five minutes of searching) advises that immigrants of "mixed [immigration] status" households should:

"Make it clear that you are seeking services only for your children, not for yourself."Do not provide any information about your own immigration status. Information about your status is unnecessary, since you are not seeking services for yourself."Do not provide any false information."

The directions are somewhat of a catch-22. The loophole seems a deliberate effort on FEMA's part to be able to provide aid to entire families if even one child is a naturalized citizen, and yet the parents must maintain the pretense of applying solely for aid on behalf of their child, all the while, not providing any "false information." What's more, it is unclear that the aid that the child will receive is enough for an entire family. 

 

The City had this to say about language assistance:

"New York City agencies are required to provide interpretation services, including the use of telephonic interpretation, oral or written translation services, and translation of essential public documents into the most commonly spoken languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Italian and Haitian Creole."Disaster victims should not hesitate to ask for an interpreter if they need one. They should tell the agency staff person what language they speak and ask for an interpreter."'I-Speak…' Cards are available at NYC Restoration Centers."

The City seems to be making a genuine, thoughtful effort to get the necessary information to all who need it. However, the information above was only listed in English, and the report still cites a "need for human capital to have necessary capabilities to address linguistic and cultural barriers" under "lessons learned." 

 

Other areas of importance and improvement that the City notes are "cultural sensitivity" and "familiarity with communities" through "community outreach" and "engagement in comfortable settings" in order to establish "trust." Most people must seek help to receive it, and they will not do so if they feel threatened in any way by the officials involved in the relief efforts. 

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What we got wrong in the Katrina recovery: inequities perpetuated and aggravated

Amidst unprecedented toxic contamination, cleanup and rebuilding plans could worsen environmental racism in the Gulf.
Miranda Phaal's insight:

There were many egregious oversights and possible instances of deliberate neglect in the wake of Katrina, but the following is a list of the actions (or lack thereof) that adversely affected poor communities and neighborhoods belonging mostly to people of color: 

— Nearly 6 months after the hurricane hit, electricity still had not been restored to "the mostly Black and Black Creole" Seventh Ward neighborhood. Residents were using generators and car batteries to power their homes, and stringing lights in the streets in an effort to ward off police harassment.

— "The EPA’s inadequate and, some suspect, distorted sampling and public information...contributed to a situation where rebuilding continue[d] without sufficient attention to toxicity or protection especially for poor people of color." There was suspicion that the EPA was "refraining from more extensive sampling to minimize its liability from any public health issues caused by quick reoccupation."

— The congregation of first- and second-generation immigrants at Mary Queen of Vietnam church on Chef Menteur Highway reported that they had no power, no water and that their doctors had evacuated and were unreachable. Their neighborhood was flooded with toxic debris, but they didn't "know how to judge the danger, or how to lessen it, since they had not received any health advisories or toxicity information." This is typically done by the Red Cross, which was present but largely ineffectual after the disaster.

— "Immediately after the storm, the EPA bypassed severely contaminated residential areas to focus sampling efforts on City Park and the shore of Lake Ponchartrain. A three-week delay surely allowed many volatile chemicals to evaporate, thus falsely minimizing the dangers of earlier exposure. As more residents returned, the EPA and CDC’s ongoing failure to provide clear and detailed risk advisories seemed a flagrant disregard for long-neglected communities’ livelihoods."

— "In FEMA’s absence, rural and small-town Cajuns organized the only relief efforts they would encounter. Houma tribal members, likewise, looked out over stagnant floodwaters for a month but saw no emergency federal aid. As the EPA dithered, returning renters, uninsured homeowners and contracted migrant workers did the work of haz-mat teams without training, safety equipment or adequate pay."

— "New Orleans’ Black, Black Creole, and recent immigrant communities" were faced "with a torturous choice: rebuild hurricane-vulnerable neighborhoods amidst unknown poisons, or watch from distant cities while developers swarm in and reshape the city to exclude them. Common Ground founder Malik Rahim, of Algiers, is one of many local activists who believe that health worries are scaring Black residents from returning." Wealthier families and individuals could afford to professional agencies to rebuild their homes, or move to undamaged neighborhoods, but the poor were left to do their own dangerous rebuilding, or not return.  

— Said Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, "Environmental racism can not only affect health, it can affect political strength and political power…The way you can kill a community easily is to not clean it up.”

— "Coastal Louisiana was a disaster zone before Katrina hit and had been for generations... The region’s ambient toxicity is generally taken for granted. At the heart of this disaster, people’s bodies and livelihoods are chained to the Gulf Coast’s economic reliance on oil and chemical manufacturing." Entire communities depend on jobs tied to industrial areas that pollute their own land, and during disasters such as floods, that pollution spreads. What's worse, "Regulatory agencies have been notoriously complicit in the poisoning of Coastal Louisiana."

— Senate Bill 1711, which would have "expand[ed] the EPA’s power to suspend state and federal regulations" by allowing "the EPA’s appointed director to waive civil rights, labor, tax, wage and public health laws for the crucial eighteen months after a disaster" was proposed. 

— Bullard feared that "environmentalists’ plans for “greenbuilding”—which involves the use of sustainable materials, energy efficiency and green technology—[would] also exclude Blacks and other communities of color. 'What is most pernicious is that greenbuilding, as it currently stands, has the potential to continue the history of racial discrimination that makes homeownership, business ownership and community development out of reach for many African Americans,' Bullard said. 'Gulf Coast greening that fails to address racial justice opens the floodgate for permanent displacement of African Americans.'" There is a tension between the often high costs of environmentally-friendly products and the groups that cannot afford them. 

— "In the Press Park area of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the Agriculture Street Landfill—a city dump closed in 1961 after decades of neighborhood pressure—was recommissioned after Hurricane Betsy to receive 1965’s version of the urban toxic encyclopedia." Before Katrina, the area was already sitting "atop the huge dumping ground declared a Superfund site in 1990 because of high lead levels in the blood of neighborhood children." Then, "the landfill flooded seven feet deep after Katrina. Any houses reclaimed in the area [had] to be gutted up to the waterline. The sheetrock, carpet, furniture and clothing [were] saturated with the Industrial Canal’s oil slick and the resurrected poisons first loosed 40 years ago, and they [sat] on the street until somebody figure[d] out a place to haul them off to and bury them."

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Storms may not discriminate, but their lasting effects reveal deep inequalities

Storms may not discriminate, but their lasting effects reveal deep inequalities | Disaster Aid & Recovery | Scoop.it
One year later Sandy’s disproportionate impact on historically marginalized communities continues in shocking ways.
Miranda Phaal's insight:

Those with fewer resources rely more heavily on federal aid, which is as it should be. The purpose of disaster relief and other social programs is to help those who need the help. However, many of these programs are notoriously sluggish and underfunded, and in an area characterized by urgent, life-or-death scenarios  – that is, disaster relief – business as usual simply will not do. This report highlighted some of the lowlights of the  Hurricane Sandy recovery effort's disproportional results one year after the storm. "People of color and the working poor," unsurprisingly, were the ones having the most trouble getting back on their feet.  

 

More than 50 million people felt Sandy's impact directly and immediately, "but this initial equality of experience was worn away by the reality of economic inequity." According to local NPR station WNYC, "none of the heating systems in public buildings that received temporary boilers after the storm" had been repaired. At that point more than 10,000 people were relying on those "back-stop heating measures" as winter approached. (The weeks-long blackout (caused by the superstorm) of the previous winter saw 87 people freeze to death in their homes.) At the same time, of the $ half billion in Community Development Block Grants that New York City received, which were "aimed at helping the working poor and lower middle class recover," only one homeowner had received a check.

 

Even more alarming, a month prior, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration had "ordered hundreds of Sandy evacuees still living in city-funded hotel rooms to leave" their temporary housing. The residents sued the city to be able to stay longer, because otherwise, in a city with a less than 1% vacancy rate for affordable housing, Legal Aid's Judith Goldliner told NPR, “a lot of these people are going to end up homeless."

 

New York City and the surrounding area is "home to the largest gap between rich and poor on a scale seen in few places outside of sub-Saharan Africa," and "the numbers show the toxic results of what can happen when an environmental catastrophe collides with economic inequity... One out of five of the city’s public housing units is located in buildings damaged by the storm with people of color making up to 80 percent of those living in New York City public housing. Moreover, one out seven of the city’s rent-regulated apartments are in structures either damaged or knocked out of commission due to Sandy. All told, 100,000 out of 300,000 units damaged in the housing zone were occupied by New Yorkers struggling to get by." The article goes on to assert that this "clustering of the historically marginalized into Sandy-effected areas is no accident." In the 1960s, New York City "decision-makers...decided to locate vast tracts of public housing in neighborhoods distant from the city core which were more likely to flood." The trend has only continued as that year, the city experienced a net loss of 400,000 affordable housing units. "This collapse in housing for the working poor and lower middle class across the city has pushed even more people into areas, such as those impacted by the storm, where affordable housing is available. The concentration of the working poor in Sandy-effected neighborhoods is why the majority of those who applied for post-hurricane federal aid are renters whose median income is $18,000 a year." 

 

It is possible and even likely that none of New York's disaster protocols in response to hurricane Sandy were overtly – or even intentionally – discriminatory, but their discrepancies fell along the lines of certain historically marginalized groups. Some of this seems to be a result of disaster planning, preparation and precaution, such as the housing crisis, rather than any particular fault in the protocols themselves. I will try to follow up and find out how the groups mentioned in this article have been cared for (or not) since its publication in October 2013.  

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FEMA, like storms, does not discriminate, says FEMA

FEMA, like storms, does not discriminate, says FEMA | Disaster Aid & Recovery | Scoop.it
WINDSOR, Conn. — Storms don’t discriminate and neither does FEMA, federal officials emphasized today.“Everybody’s circumstances are different and people won’t all be helped the same way. But our promise is to treat everybody equally,” said Federal Coordinating Officer Albert Lewis. “We are not a law enforcement agency; we are a helping agency. That’s why we’re here.”
Miranda Phaal's insight:

Scoop 1 of 2 about the nuts and bolts of how FEMA deals with possible discrimination in its services. 

 

According to this January, 2013 news release , FEMA considers it part of their mission to make assistance available to everyone in an affected community, "regardless of race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English proficiency or economic status." The release does not say how exactly they achieve this level of equality, but it does make clear that non-discrimination in government services is written into federal law, which "permeates FEMA’s approach to providing fully inclusive disaster recovery services." 

 

The release mentions a few practices of FEMA's that certainly seem like steps in the right direction. All of an aid applicant's information is confidential, and "FEMA’s Voluntary Agency Liaison works specifically with voluntary and faith-based organizations" to "provide case management support for applicants, whether they are citizens or not." “We are not a law enforcement agency," says Federal Coordinating Officer Albert Lewis, "we are a helping agency. That’s why we’re here.”

 

However, survivors must still register with FEMA to receive aid, and though it seems like a necessary step that FEMA knows who it is supposed to be helping before it can help them, questions of information dissemination and access do arise. Are those with access to the internet better informed of how to ask for aid, and do they receive faster assistance? How does FEMA handle information distribution amidst the chaos of severe disaster areas? Might certain groups be deterred by the application process? Might community attitudes dissuade entire groups from seeking assistance (from the Federal Government)? Officer Lewis also pointed out that “everybody’s circumstances are different and people won’t all be helped the same way," and despite FEMA's "promise...to treat everybody equally,” the inherent situational inequalities of disaster aid may be enough to disguise discrimination. 

 

This news release came in response to Hurricane Sandy, and FEMA provided the following information for survivors:

 

"The deadline to register is Jan. 28. Survivors can register online anytime day or night at www.DisasterAssistance.gov, or with a smartphone or other Web-enabled device at m.fema.gov. Survivors can also register by phone 24 hours a day at 800-621-3362. Effective at 7 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 20, hours will be 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. the following day. The TTY number is 800-462-7585. Multilingual operators are available during the same hours at the close of the English message."

 

Email and phone contact information is provided, supposedly available 24/7 with multilingual operators available after an English message is played (if I read that right), but it still seems fairly easy to fall through the cracks. Also, I am left wondering what prompted FEMA to feel the need to reemphasize that they do not discriminate.

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Spread the money around or concentrate it in one place until the job is done?: What is fair (and what is policy) for the remaining Superstorm Sandy aid?

Spread the money around or concentrate it in one place until the job is done?: What is fair (and what is policy) for the remaining Superstorm Sandy aid? | Disaster Aid & Recovery | Scoop.it
Wall Street Journal More Than $1 Billion in Superstorm Sandy Aid Could Leave Region Wall Street Journal Federal officials are considering spending more than $1 billion of the remaining $3.6 billion of rebuilding aid on disasters other than...
Miranda Phaal's insight:

$3.6 billion in federal aid remain for New York and New Jersey in their post-Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts. At least, according to New York and New Jersey. The federal government, on the other hand, is considering holding a competition for more than $1 billion of the earmarked aid, to go to other areas hit by major disasters in 2011, 2012 and 2013 (of which there were 208, officially). According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the bill that set aside the original $15 billion actually /required/ that the money go to several different areas. But that interpretation comes as a surprise to officials in New York and New Jersey, who argue that while the bill certainly /allows/ for such distribution of the money, it is not a requirement, and that their states need all of the remaining aid to recover and institute resiliency programs to better prepare for future disasters. 


There are many concerning elements in this article. The most glaring is the critical ambiguity of the aid bill that should never have been possible in the first place. The disaster scenarios that necessitate such bills require efficiency and tight balance sheets, with no room for such widely different interpretations that now seem likely to lead to messy (and costly) legal proceedings. More careful drafting seems like a must for the future.


Second, it seems policy to promise $15 billion and then, a few years later (after projects have been started and investments made), announce that the remaining couple billion is no longer guaranteed. And it seems questionable that distributing the aid to several different areas and funding their efforts to varying degrees of incompletion is better for those areas and the nation than seeing one recovery effort through to its end result: a fully revitalized community.


Finally, the attitude of both this piece and the policy it discusses is off-putting. The idea of disaster-affected areas competing for federal aid to garner the public's "excitement" for the government policies and programs seems, one, unnecessary, and two, insulting – even dehumanizing. Many communities throughout the nation desperately need the federal government's help to get back on their feet after a disaster, and turning their needs into a competition means that no one comes out a winner. 

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Sharing Really Is Caring - China, Japan and Korea get together to discuss disaster strategy

Sharing Really Is Caring - China, Japan and Korea get together to discuss disaster strategy | Disaster Aid & Recovery | Scoop.it
By Andy McElroy Jeju Island – Disaster experts from China, Japan and the Republic of Korea today agreed to launch joint research aimed at enhancing the compatibility of disaster data and terminology across North-East Asia
Miranda Phaal's insight:

China, Japan and Korea set a strong example for the rest of the world when disaster experts from the three nations held a forum that marked the beginning of a joint research effort to improve regional and international compatibility in disaster data and technology. The forum emphasized the importance of DRR (disaster risk reduction) technology sharing, the integration of "disaster considerations into development decision-making,” "regional policymaking and norm setting," the integration of disaster data into "the national statistical system that involves designated government agencies publishing official disaster statistics” and, most importantly, the "need for a readily accessible platform to share tools, knowledge and information." This kind of synchronicity is vital both to future planning and fast action in the present whenever the next disaster may strike. 

 

The forum also came up with some concrete next steps, including "the establishment of a working group to define and categorise disasters under a common terminology; exploring the possibility of a disaster data repository; and the compilation of a reference guide on procedures and protocols pertaining to collection, processing, analysing and disseminating disaster statistics." The U.S. already has such a repository (the Disaster and Failure Studies Repository) as a part of NIST, but we do not hear much about it, and I would like to know how often it is used and in what capacities. I will also look into the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) mentioned in the article, as well as DRR technology. 


I am researching with eye for what may be useful in the U.S., and we likely do not have the same kind of synchronicity issues as do three separate countries. Nevertheless, the suggestions generated from such a diverse discussion seem insightful (some we should have in place here, if we do not already), and any country benefits from outside perspective.  


It is still early for this "disaster summit," but too often good ideas are raised in generative discussions such as this and then left untouched on the table. Although this consortium had a staggering amounts of organizers, participants, etc, it still has no real power, and all it can do is make suggestions and ask for other parties to follow up on a few. Perhaps the creation of a discussion and idea-generating/refining body that has some power to make or guide policymaking would be more effective. 


Note: preventionweb may be a good source for more material.

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